Monday, January 17, 2011

David Cameron's Eurosceptic Headache

The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, this week faced down a rebellion from back-bench Conservative MPs over Europe. Even after Europe minister David Liddington promised to make last-minute changes to toughen up the European Union (Referendum Lock) Bill, 27 MPs voted against it for not being tough enough on EU sovereignty.
The Bill aims to strengthen the UK procedures for agreeing to or ratifying certain EU decisions and Treaty changes, by providing for a referendum throughout the United Kingdom on any proposed EU treaty or Treaty change which would transfer powers from the UK to the EU.

It's not the first time in his premiership that Mr Cameron has faced a rebellion on Europe: Last year, 37 Tory MPs broke the government line to demand a cut in the EU budget. The question is why David Cameron decided to re-open a Pandora's box when it was entirely avoidable and when the Bill has almost no effect on the relationship between the UK and the EU in any case.

The British Government was keen to play up the significance of the Bill. Foreign secretary, William Hague said at the weekend the plans were "the strongest defence of national democracy put in place anywhere in Europe", and “a massive advance for national democracy”. David Cameron told BBC Radio 5 live on Sunday that “we will make sure that if politicians try to take powers from Westminster to Brussels you, the British people, will be given a referendum". But do the Bill's ambitions match the hyperbole?

The purpose of the Referendum Lock Bill was to ensure that governments abide by promises made to hold referendums on EU Treaty changes. Yet, the government would still in effect have the last word on whether a referendum would be needed. This Bill is not binding on furture parliaments and governments and EU law would still keep its supremacy over UK law. European Court of Justice rulings would still be applicable to the implentation of EU law in the UK.

No wonder then the eurosceptics are not happy. In any event, the Bill misses the point. Many Conservative Party MPs and members were never interested in so-called safeguards against more competences for the EU: they were settled on nothing less than repatriation of large amounts of policy-making from Brussels to London. However, a coaltion with pro-European Liberal Democrats has prevented Mr Cameron from pursuing repatriation of powers. And by refusing to concede to any of the euro-sceptic amendments he has ended up in a position of defending a Bill that was designed to appease his rank and file over Europe but which has only infuriated his euroscpetic members.

One such disgruntled euro-sceptic is Douglas Carswell MP, who wrote on his blog that "This bogus EU Bill is no substitute for the referendum we were promised." He continues to say that “… this Bill will do absolutely zip to halt the European commission proposals being cooked up right now in Brussels, which are to give Eurocrats a direct say over the formation of economic policy in Euro zone, and non-Euro zone countries alike.”

In a nod to his eurosceptics, Mr Cameron was quick to say this week - when French Prime Minister Francois Fillon came to visit - that the UK would take no part in any harmonisation of economic or social policy that may come about in order to support the beleagured single currency.

M. Francois Fillon said, "I've asked the UK to look at the arguments for harmonisation in a favourable light." He added: "I'm not asking the UK to join the eurozone ... [the] British want to remain British". "The question is: is the UK ready to accept or encourage greater integration of the eurozone or is the UK distrustful of that and will it create obstacles and make it more difficult to happen?"

M. Fillon was relieved to hear that Mr Cameron back more social and economic harmonisation for Eurozone countries. But it remains to be seen whether his eurosceptics will be satisfied with his insistence that the UK will not be drawn into new economic governance measures.

The EU Bill has let the genie out of the bottle. This was the week that saw the return of the eurosceptics. And Mr Cameron may need to start thinking of ways of keeping them on board without upsetting his coalition partners. An almost impossible task.

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